Several weeks ago, I took a group of students to NYC(New York City). One theme, among many, that occurs regularly in my classroom, is the role that race and power play in the history that we learn. This theme comes up in my online classroom because it comes up in society. It is especially important if you do not happen to be one of the pale people. I want them to learn that the United States, as great as it is, has an unpleasant and complicated history. One example of this is the History of Central Park.
Central Park was not always a park. In fact, the park had a thriving and complex village of African American and Irish people who were entirely displaced in order to create it. The neighborhood was known as Seneca Village and it had three churches, cemeteries, houses, and a school. It was the only community of African American property owners and it existed more than 40 years prior to the abolition of slavery. I am familiar with the story, so I have gotten into the habit of simply telling my students what happened when I bring them to the park. While storytelling has a place, it did not effectively convey the richness of the history to my students.
This is the heartbreaking and startling lesson that I will teach before the trip next year:
First, I will tell them that some people were moved to make Central Park. I will take them to this fabulous interactive Map of the Village. From the WizIQ virtual classroom, I will show them some key sites and send them to explore it themselves for a few minutes. There is also a slideshow of the recent archeological dig, where historians unearthed numerous artifacts that document African American middle class life in the 1800s.
I will show them pictures. This is a picture of a tiny leather shoe that was worn on the foot of a child.
I will ask them to guess how many years it took researchers to gain permission to explore this land. We will read this article together; they will find that it took more than a decade- just to get permission to do a small archeological dig. It was in the New York Times too.
Finally, I will ask them what they think will be on the Official NYC Parks site about the history of Central Park. It states, “Landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing joined Bryant in his pleas and together they pressed officials to set aside land before it was swallowed up by the fast-developing city. In a moment of rare political consensus, both parties at that time endorsed the idea of a large public park.” I will ask my students if they think that the African-American and Irish people were included in that “rare moment of political consensus?”
Then, perhaps we can talk a little bit about how people in power keep and hold their privilege and ask them to reflect upon the idea that “history is written by the winners.”
When we get to NYC, we will go to the park, and I will sit with them in the space that was once the home of people. We will bring a map and see if we can find the places where the history actually took place.
While we are sitting in the park, I will review the ideas that we explored in the online classroom. Then, I will ask them a couple more questions, such as:
Why do you think that the history of Seneca Village was so hard to reconstruct?
Why do you think that it is not mentioned on the Official Website of Central Park?
Who are the people who make decisions trying to protect? Why?
By using the principles of the Flipped Classroom, I am going to provide them with the more factual information when they are at home, and save the juicy and mind blowing conversations for a time when it is easier. In this way, the students and I both use our time well and I still get to be there for the moments when their eyes light up with understanding.
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